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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Blackpool Redux

The current spate of public disquiet with traffic rerouting in Blackpool's town centre, and the essential reconstruction work on two important road bridges over the railway from Blackpool South - are understandable. Particularly during an important holiday season. They echo in a familiar way similar and understandable concerns by Fleetwood's traders and community during the extensive reconstruction of Lord Street and Bold Street when the tramway was undergoing upgrading to light rail standards in 2010/2011. Cleveleys centre was not immune from dislocation when the tram tracks crossing Victoria Square were uplifted and realigned - for a shorter contractors period.

Blackpool is finally undergoing something of a makeover aided and abetted by both public and private investment. The most obvious feature being electrification of the rail line into Blackpool North from Preston - requiring extensive infrastructure improvement, not the least of which is the straightening of the station platform layout to accommodate longer trains and new rolling stock. Thankfully the impressive reconstruction of the road bridge at Bispham Road was completed on time and very efficiently thanks to the Council's Operational team working with contractors and Network Rail and Northern Rail.

A less obvious example of Blackpool's 'new look' - but an important one to residents. The new Victoria Hospital development with its smart bus terminal point - now if only the town centre bus stops were similarly treated... The bus is now long gone superseded by 'Palladium' models in the BTS image from 2015. Below - a ceremony on the Tower Headland in 2016 marking arrival of the 'new look' double deck buses for Blackpool - familiar sight in 2017 as they take over from the yellow and black cousins.

Next in line is the new tramway extension up Talbot Road which one hopes will lead to a total transformation of this run down and depressing stretch of urban streetscape, marred by charity shops, empty shop fronts and worse. The oppressive concrete edifice housing the Wilko retail store (and unused car park) will become a distant memory replaced by bright new structures that fit the forward looking image of Blackpool greeting visitors at Talbot Gateway development of Muse. Perhaps a little late in delivery, but nonetheless welcome as a transforming investment - bringing as it does light rail service more or less directly to a quality interchange with electrified rail services on the national network. Whilst people quibble over the means by which this is being achieved, at least we can see the Council's vision and strategy producing tangible change to the town centre, long overdue for residents seeking a far better commercial and social hub.

The decision to utilise land next to the Winter Gardens and Opera House for a quality conferencing venue is a wise move. Not on the scale of the offer to be found in Liverpool or Manchester, but times have moved on. The seaside will always attract visitors and conferences : just providing a for purpose modern infrastructure that meets the needs of mid size conferences and exhibitions is far preferable to a white elephant trophy building. Whilst placing it in the heart of the town's commercial centre is equally to be applauded - benefitting faithful retail and restaurant operators located away from the promenade strip.

Extension of the Houndshill flagship centre with a new cinema is also overdue and adds to all weather leisure offer in the town centre. The bleak off centre cinema on Rigby Road whilst better than nothing, hardly does justice to the visitor market which now clusters in and around the Hounds Hill and Winter Gardens precinct. Revamping the Winter Gardens to a highly creditable standard has been a jewel for the Council's ambitions in recent years, and work of those who secured the financing to achieve this long sought objective for an important heritage structure. Its management are equally to be applauded for putting Blackpool on the dance festival map - in China, a market of enormous visitor potential in coming years and decades. The Grand Theatre is an equally classic icon of live performance in the town now eminently marketed with contrasting and varied entertainment offer year round.

The Owners of the 'Sands' venue are committing to investment that will transform their property on the former 'Palatine' site with stunning new structures for hotel and leisure that will transform this area - alongside the still iconic former 'Woolworth's' structure of the 1930s. Work is ongoing to reclad the facade of the former 'Savoy Bowl' building whilst the equally classic frontage of 'Burton's' retail structure has been remodelled in recent years retaining its 1930s style. Elsewhere change is in evidence at South Shore with a modern hotel complex nearing completion replacing tired hotel properties; with hopefully more to follow transforming this important seafront gateway entry along Blackpool's seafront. The Pleasure Beach Company are in the midst of their dramatic new thrill ride attraction under construction and about to replace an unused public house 'Starr Inn' with extension to their very successful 'Big Blue' hotel also in modern style. Blackpool's Piers owning company have improved the look of their three yes three piers - the only seaside town in Britain with three of this period waterside attractions. Other investment by private sector owners is to be found alongside the neglected properties of absentee and uncaring landlords - all too obvious to the public.

Blackpool's public owned transport company is transforming its image and services with the smartest buses outside of the capital. Whilst some may yearn for the former green and cream colours which made the town's buses and trams famous in the previous century - the 'Palladium' branding is unique to Blackpool and distinctive when set against the norm of the big bus operators dominating urban transport services in most other towns and cities in the UK. Possibly only Edinburgh (sorry Lothian Region) and London maintain equally proud fleet styling on a par with Blackpool Transport's new look. Now if we can only get those depressing trams similarly rebranded....

Elsewhere whole new housing developments are underway along Rigby Road transforming this former industrial area which once hosted gas works, illuminations workshops, tram depot and rundown boarding houses. Layton similarly is gaining an emerging new estate of affordable housing to creative designs and agreeable streetscape - in contrast to the boring private sector 'gulags' appearing on the former site of Pontins holiday camp and similar 'luxury developments' sprouting up wherever a green field offers chance for ever more house building, but minus any commensurate investment in new roads and social amenities.

One big blot on the landscape of course is the former Central Station site given over to a Council car park and lamentable coach 'station' together with the Lubyanka police station and magistrates courts now well past their sell by date. A deal done with a US group is likely to bring about a wholesome change to this gruesome scene in the near future - with final plans yet to be revealed but promising a radical makeover long overdue for this key town centre site.

Of course Blackpool still has more than its share of social and economic challenges as areas like Central Drive attest. There are however a diverse number of positive new investments in the town enough to warrant to an optimistic thumbs up, even whilst waiting in traffic due to one of those frustrating detours. Its worth the wait. Nogain without pain.

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